6 Things You Didn't Know About the First American Thanksgiving

Turkey might not even have been on the menu at the first Thanksgiving

By Helen Partlow, publisher of Macaroni Kid Mt. Sinai and Port Jefferson, N.Y. November 17, 2023

Thanksgiving is the day when Americans gather with friends and family for a big feast, watch football, and sing along with the Thanksgiving Day parade. It's a day we share, as a family, the things in our lives we are thankful for.  

We were taught in school — at least when I was a kid — that the first Thanksgiving was a coming together of the Pilgrims and Native Americans in celebration of a harvest. But were things really that simple? Or have the details faded into the background over time?  

6 things you may not known about The First Thanksgiving in America

1. Turkey might not have been served at the first American Thanksgiving

Pilgrim Edward Winslow wrote about the first Thanksgiving and his account is one of the only primary sources that we have of this event. He wrote that the settlers sent out four men who hunted fowl and brought back enough for a whole week. He also mentioned that wild turkeys were abundant but does not specify that they were served at the feast. It could have just as easily been birds like duck and geese served that day. He does note the Native American Wampanoag tribe brought five deer to add to the meal. Those are the only foods explicitly mentioned by Winslow.

Sadly, likely no pie was served at the first Thanksgiving either, as the Pilgrims did not have much sugar or other components needed to make a pie. Sweet potatoes might not have been at the feast either - read more about sweet potatoes in America.

2. How the the Native Americans ended up at the Pilgrim feast?

While Native Americans did end up attending the celebratory feast, their attendance was not pre-planned. The English written history is not clear, and the Native American oral history does not go back as far as this event. Winslow wrote that 90 Native American men, including their leader Massasoit, feasted among the Pilgrims for three days. It's thought that the sound of the Pilgrims firing off their guns and cannons, gained the attention of the nearby Wampanoag, who came to investigate, the historic preservation officer of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe says. This could be how these two cultures came together for this famous feast.

3. Squanto learned English because he was enslaved in Europe

Squanto was a Native American who was part of the Patuxet, a group of the Wampanoag tribe. He even crossed the Atlantic Ocean to return back to Massachusetts after being kidnapped and sold into slavery. During his time in Europe he was taught English. When he arrived back home in 1619, he found his tribe had perished. He was the last of the Patuxet.

Two years later he helped the Pilgrims by acting as a translator between them and the Wampanoag tribe. He also taught the Pilgrims how to grow crops in their new home, as the soil acidity was very different than what they were used to. 

4. Only four women settlers were at the first Thanksgiving feast

Pilgrim men believed women had a "weaker body" and that the voyage across the ocean would be too much to bear. So many Pilgrims left their wives and families behind in hopes that they would join them later, once things were more settled. 

But 18 husbands decided to bring their wives along with them, and all 18 women survived the voyage. But it turned out the voyage was the easy part. Of the original 18 women who arrived on the Mayflower in November 1620, only 5 women survived to the spring of 1621. By the time of the famous harvest feast, there were only four women remaining.

5. Most of the settlers at the feast were young

About half of the settlers at the harvest feast were children and teenagers. Out of the over 50 settlers, 22 were men, 4 married women and over 25 were children and teenagers.

6. Thanksgiving did not become a national Holiday until 1863

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday to celebrate and show gratitude for a win in a Gettysburg battle during the American Civil War. This was a culmination of a 36-year campaign made by Sarah Josepha Hale, the original author of the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb."  Her persuasive writings on why Thanksgiving should be a national holiday are believed to be a strong influence in Lincoln deciding to make a national day of Thanksgiving.

Want to learn more? 

Have some fun learning about the history of Thanksgiving with your kids with these online tools:

Helen Partlow is the publisher of Macaroni Kid Mt. Sinai and Port Jefferson, N.Y.

This previously shared article was edited and updated by Brenna Gutell, publisher of Macaroni KID Conejo Valley - Malibu - Calabasas